By Clive Jennings
If you are in the vicinity of Rathbone Place in the early evening, you will occasionally see a bunch of disparate types, myself included, disappear into the upstairs room of The Wheatsheaf pub to attend a talk at The Sohemian Society — but be advised, Sohemia is more than a club, it is a state of mind.
While their website explains that “The Sohemian Society exists to promote greater awareness of the characters and events associated with the history of Soho covering areas such as the arts, crime, sex, and politics,” it also subverts any notions of convention by adding the rider that “Soho is a spiritual as well as a geographical location: a vortex of louche living, artistic creativity, cultural nonconformity and free expression.”
Marc Glendenning, who founded The Sohemian Society with Ian Farrow, explains its origins to me. Farrow had given Marc a copy of Paul Willetts new biography of Julian Maclaren-Ross, Fear & Loathing in Fitzrovia and the book touched a nerve in both men. They felt an urge to celebrate the Soho (which of course included Fitzrovia before it was designated to be only south of Oxford Street, in the 1960s) that was disappearing in a culture of “anti-smoking campaigns, obsessive risk avoidance, concerns about diet, pubs with sofas and fear of ‘offensive’ statements.”
It was 2003, The Sohemian Society was born and Julian Maclaren-Ross was declared its “president in death”.
To appreciate the importance of their spiritual patron, and the relevance of The Wheatsheaf as a venue for meetings, you need to imagine Fitzrovia in 1943. The artistic and literary set that had formerly frequented The Fitzroy Tavern had moved on when the erstwhile centre of all things bohemian had become a victim of its own success, and was now more famous as a homosexual pick-up joint frequented by gawping sightseers. Indeed it was not uncommon for smart couples to go there after supper in Mayfair to spot the “bohemians”.
The new drinking hole of choice was The Wheatsheaf, a couple of minutes walk south, in Rathbone Place. Built between the wars, in the then popular mock tudor style, it was very different to its Georgian neighbours on either side, and a lot more genteel than The Fitzroy.
This was the second home of Maclaren-Ross, who would arrive punctually at opening time – lunchtime and evening session – breeze straight through the Public Bar and into the rear Saloon Bar, where he would hold court at the left hand end of the bar, where it was easier to get served. MacLaren-Ross’s anecdotes were oft retold, and he was prone to dominate the conversation, but his encyclopaedic knowledge of both contemporary literature and film made him stimulating company. He was a prolific writer, drinker, drug taker and occasional tramp.
The inaugural meeting of The Sohemian Society started at The French House in Dean Street, where old cronies of Maclaren-Ross, including artist Jack Daniel and physician Jimmy Winston, reminisced about their old drinking partner, and then moved to The Wheatsheaf for readings from Paul Willetts.
Over seven years, an impressive roster of guest speakers, all aspiring to be as loquacious as Maclaren-Ross, has covered almost every aspect of Soho and bohemian pursuits. The most recent meeting on 18 January featured Professor Frank Mort speaking on the theme of: “Capital Affairs: 1950s London and the making of the Permissive Society.” Also conducted walks around the low spots of the neighbourhood have been organised at the twilight hour.
The meetings are very informal: no Maclaren-Ross dress code, I assure you, and drinking during the talks is encouraged. All are welcome for the entrance fee of around £3. You have nothing to lose but your inhibitions.
More information at: www.sohemians.com